Jennifer O’Sullivan won herself the title of West Yorkshire Poetry by Heart Champion back in the County Finals in February this year, after earlier winning in the College contest in late December. As Champion for West Yorkshire she also won an all expenses paid trip and accommodation in London between the 13th and 15th of March to compete in the Regional Semi-Finals. Jennifer was accompanied on her trip by both myself and her Grandmother.
On the first night of her arrival she met other contestants from colleges and schools across the country at a Reception held at St Martin’s-in-the-field Crypt, where former poet Laureate Andrew Motion gave an inspiring and passionate speech about how he came to set up Poetry by Heart. The next day, while the first batch of heats were being competed, Jennifer and the rest of her selected group were taken on a literary double deck bus tour of London – including a visit to Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey.
That same afternoon, Jennifer’s regional heat began. She chose to recite the three poems which had served her well in the previous competitions: Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Colonel by Carolyn Forche and – in the event of a tie-break or making it to the National Finals – The Stretcher Bearer by Tom Crawford. Jennifer was competing against Amelia Cook (Mount School, North Yorkshire), Nathania Ewruji (Red House School, County Durham), Matilda Neill (Whitley Bay High School, Tyne and Wear) and Nancy Thorpe (Sheffield High School, South Yorkshire).
All of the girls recited their chosen poems in front of the three judges – Andrew Motion (former poet laureate), Patience Agbabi (poet and Fellow in Creative Writing at Oxford Brookes University) and Tim Dee (BBC Radio Producer of Poetry Please on Radio 4).
Due to the quality of the performances it took nearly half an hour for the judges to decide on a winner which, sadly for the college, wasn’t Jennifer: the final place instead went to Matilda from Whitley Bay High School.
The main message of the Poetry by Heart contest is that “no one is a loser” and Jennifer and the three other girls were awarded a formal contest finalist certificate by Andrew himself, who complimented Jennifer personally on her performance and told her she “looked like someone who might write poetry”.
Jennifer’s performances exceeded those given at the county contest and she did her family, her college and most importantly herself proud. As well as being awarded her finalist certificate at the end of the National Finals the following day, which Matilda from Whitley Bay High School won, all contestants were given a set of speakers and a free membership to the Poetry Society.
We are all so exceptionally proud of Jennifer. This is the college’s first participation in the Poetry by Heart contest and to have one of our very talented students go on to compete so well in the London semi-finals makes all our efforts at hosting the contest worthwhile. Listening to all those young people of Jennifer’s generation recite poetry not just word for word but from the depth of their hearts, expressing their understanding and in many cases love for the poems they chose with their voices, was truly remarkable and immensely inspiring and influential.
The success of the contest also shows that, even in the 21st century where many young people are distracted daily by mobiles, TV and internet, there is still a place for poetry in society and Jennifer is living proof of that. All we can do now is look forward to next year and wonder at what new talent will emerge from our student community!